Stop Asking Possible 2016 Candidates Whether They'll Run or Not. It's a Waste of Everybody's Time.

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 22 2013 11:13 AM

Stop Asking Possible 2016 Candidates Whether They'll Run or Not. It's a Waste of Everybody's Time.

173495271
Any hint of presidential ambitions that a reporter can pull out of a politician (like Sen. Ted Cruz) becomes moot the moment he announces his decision.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Reporting from Iowa on Saturday—from what could accurately be described as "the campaign trail"—the great Yahoo! News reporter Chris Moody revealed his shame:

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

But there were lots of church friends there this weekend, and Jonathan Karl's report for ABC News revealed just how much of an aura the "presidential buzz" gives you. Instead of getting questions about policy—you still get some!—you spend half your time coming up with boring answers about your actual presidential aspirations.

Not to pick on Karl, who by appearances attached himself to Ted Cruz like a magnet and buffeted him with questions, but there's something useless and surreal about asking a politician "will you run for president?" That's binary. He will, or he won't. When he will, he'll announce it through the leak of his choice, then in the state of his choice. But Karl went through every possible permutation of the question. From just the first round:

KARL: What's going on here? Are you running for president?
CRUZ: John, [sic] we are having a national debate about which direction the country should go ...  and what I am doing now is trying to participate in that national debate. I understand that everyone likes to focus on the politics.
KARL: Last year, that was your first election you've ever won. First time ever. Are you ready to run for president?
CRUZ: You know, I'm not focused on the politics.
KARL: Is it fair to say you're not?
CRUZ: John, I've been in the Senate all of seven months. The last office I was elected to was student council. So this has been a bit of a whirlwind.
KARL: You were born in Canada. Are you even eligible to be president of the United States?

It's grimly fun to watch a politician squirm, but come on—do we think Cruz hasn't pondered these questions? This sort of "grilling" of 2016-ers is largely useless. The right way of grilling them was paved by Charlie Savage, who in two consecutive presidential elections submitted questionnaires to each candidate, asking about their views of executive power.

Did you know that Mitt Romney weighed in on indefinite detention? He did: "U.S. citizens would always have the right to challenge their detention in habeas corpus proceedings before a federal judge." More importantly, Obama's 2007 answers to Savage's questions have become the basis for well-grounded charges of hypocrisy—or, sorry, "evolution"—in the president's national security positions.

But shouldn't that be obvious? Ask a candidate five questions on the theme of "will you run for president," and you've got answers that become trivia as soon as he makes the actual decision. Take him seriously and ask him to weigh in on some power of the presidency, and you've got a black-and-white statement that you can throw back at him for the rest of his career.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.